Tuesday, September 18, 2018

High School Movies, Then and Now

Netflix recently released a handful of romantic comedies set in high schools, including To All the Boys I've Loved Before and Sierra Burgess is a Loser, and their arrival has provided an opportunity to watch a new generation of high school movies and reflect on those that came before, particularly the iconic 80s films of John Hughes. A lot has changed since The Breakfast Club made its debut in 1985, but the basic anxieties of middle class American high school students seem to be the same: fear of rejection, longing for love/acceptance, frustration with parents, and a combination of both hope and fear at the prospect of growing up, whatever that means. At the same time, modern high school movies have opened up in terms of characters - and who gets to be a protagonist - in ways many of us Gen Xers could never have imagined when we were teens, and that's a heartening evolution even when the new movies have problems of their own in terms of representation or execution.

I admit to being mystified by many of the situations depicted in high school movies. My own high school experience was so catastrophically miserable that I escaped to college a year early and never looked back. I didn't see myself in the high school pictures of the 1980s - I was an aggressively nerdy girl who devoured books whole and got kicked out of class for asking too many questions (no, really; I spent 10th grade doing "independent study" for World History because I showed up to class having already read every damn book about Ancient Egypt in the school library and went full Hermione Granger on the subject until the teacher got sick of me, which took all of three days). However, thanks to the gendered roles in movies like The Breakfast Club, I got pegged as the Ally Sheedy "weirdo" instead of the Anthony Michael Hall "nerd" type, although to be fair I probably would have been beaten up and bullied equally often under either label. At any rate, I didn't see myself in the movies then and still don't see much of that younger me in the movies now (thank you forever, J.K. Rowling, for giving me both Hermione AND Luna Lovegood as variations of the girl I once was). My own teenager, now a high school senior, also doesn't "get" high school movies thanks to being homeschooled. She tried 9th grade at a local school and quickly decided it wasn't for her. We're neither of us the people for whom these movies get made.

On some level I find high school movies interesting precisely because most of them seem like stories about alien worlds to me. What is this thing called popularity? What's with the wild parties? Did my peers actually do stuff like that and I was just oblivious? (Spoiler: They did, and I was.) The new Netflix high school movies have a sweetness about them that I also find appealing; there's less sex and a lot more focus on girls' complex emotional lives and their relationships with other girls. We didn't see a lot of that in the 80s, and it's encouraging to see it now, even in the darker Netflix TV show, Stranger Things, where Nancy's whole vengeance and truth-finding arc is driven by her love for and guilt about Barb. Speaking of Barb, Shannon Purser's brief but compelling performance on Stranger Things made me delighted to see her as the protagonist in Sierra Burgess is a Loser, and even if the film gets into trouble with its Cyrano de Bergerac revision it's still worth watching because Shannon Purser is so good and so authentic as the kind of girl we didn't see in high school movies before. I'd like more movies with Shannon Purser, please.

I do think high school movies have come a long way in terms of how they depict adolescent experience and whose stories they're willing to tell, but there's still plenty of ground yet to be covered. I have no idea if the Andy Hardy pictures resonated with the real lives of teenagers in the 1930s, but they certainly glossed over the darker realities of youth in the Great Depression. Now we get a wider range of views, from the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower to Love, Simon (2018) and To All the Boys I've Loved Before, which blends its rom-com setup with explorations of what it means to belong to two cultures and what's like to grow up with an absent or deceased parent. Browsing through the posters for high school movies I do think we could use more young people of color in leading roles and more stories about lesbian, trans, and non-binary teens that aren't dark dramas or tragedies because those kids need to see themselves in hopeful, romantic, and light-hearted comedies, too. If I'm still pleased in my mid-40s to see high school movies include more characters I can identify with, then imagine how important it is to today's 16 and 17 year olds to get that in the high school movies they're watching.

There's a 99% chance that your high school experience was really different from mine (but more likely that it was also catastrophically miserable in its own special way). What do you make of high school movies now that you look back at the ones you saw when you were a teen? What do you see in the new ones being made today? Feel free to share in the comments!

PS - I can't end this post without a special shout out to Sky High (2005), a live action Disney film that has long been a favorite high school movie in my house of dedicated comic book nerds. It's goofy and even absurd but pitches the high school experience in a way that my husband, kid, and I all find immensely appealing. It offers diverse characters, lots of self-aware humor, and some very entertaining action scenes that take school fights to a whole new level. Plus, it has Bruce Campbell, Kurt Russell, Lynda Carter, and Cloris Leachman in it!